For Photographers: How to Get Kids to Smile Naturally For Mini Sessions

For Photographers

HowToGetKidsToSmile_001.jpgOne of my students in my “Mini Session Masterclass” asked me this question in our Facebook group:

“Can we discuss tips for photographing mini sessions? I’ve had some where the little ones are exhausted and hard to photograph. Do you have any tips to get them to smile or have fun when it’s such a short session?”

Rather than just answering in the group, I thought I’d share here too in case anyone else has this problem!
HowToGetKidsToSmile_002.jpgLet me just start out by saying…whoever made up the phrase “say cheese” in effort to get children to smile for a picture clearly wasn’t a professional photographer that wanted to get genuine smiles. My style for my family photography is always simple, natural and happy. “Say cheese” helps me achieve none of those things.


No doubt, it can sometimes feel like a tall order to have a successful, naturally smiley mini session if a child isn’t in the best of moods. Luckily, I have some tried and true tricks to share that majority of the time work for me to make our 20 minutes of mini session shooting time together fun, easy and an overall great experience for both the children and parents.

1. It Starts Before the Session

To set myself up to have the best mini session possible for each family, it begins upon arrival. My tone is intentionally warm, friendly and I greet each child by name with a big smile on my face. If the child is small and already on the ground, I will crouch down to his/her level to say hello. As we walk to our shooting spot, I will casually ask the child some very simple questions or compliment him/her on his/her appearance. Examples:

  • “{Name}, how old are you?”
  • “{Name}, what grade are you in? Do you like your teacher this year?”
  • “Are you a big brother now? What is your baby sister’s name?”
  • “I just love your dress…you look so beautiful!” or “Look at your shoes! They are just so pretty!”
  • “You have the most beautiful hair!”
  • “Look at you! You look JUST like your daddy!”

Mainly, I am trying to connect with the child and get them as comfortable as one can within that first couple of minutes before the camera goes up over my face.

2. Make It Fun With Simple Prompts

Part of my mini sessions are focused on classic “smile at me” poses, but children generally don’t make it more than a few minutes with this approach solely. The use of simple and fun prompts most always brings out those “real” smiles that parents want to see in photographs of their children. However, with just 20 minutes of shooting time per family, there isn’t really time to experiment with new prompts. I tend to use the same set of 4-5 for each session. 

A few of my favorites:

“The Airplane” (variations are sitting/standing, as well as which parent is holding the child that is the airplane).HowToGetKidsToSmile_003.jpg

“Walk and swing” – because what child really doesn’t love doing this with his/her parents?!

“Throw leaves” – easy enough and ensures a fun time!HowToGetKidsToSmile_007.jpg

“Twirl around” – always especially fun with dresses. 

“Peek-a-boo” – this is for the younger children….I either have the child do it or I will hide behind my camera and “pop out” saying, “where’s {name}?! THERE SHE IS!”.

“Spin Around”

“Tickle” – I will vary this by giving each family member a turn to be tickled. “okay, now tickle {name}!” 


3. Be Flexible

If you have tried poses and prompts and the session still isn’t going well or you are photographing children with a lot of energy that won’t stay in one place no matter what you do…sometimes it best to take a break from directing the session and let them just go rouge. After a couple of minutes of letting them do what they want to do, you can try again. 

In the session below there were three small boys (a baby that isn’t pictured) for a Motherhood Mini Session. After maxing out all of my tricks and coming up short, I knew I should let them have a break to wander a bit. Not only was I able to get some candid shots of the oldest in the blueberry orchard, but I had mom stick close by and pull them in close for a quick couple of shots when they were least expecting it. πŸ™‚

4. Be a Goofball

I always apologize to the parents that they have to see me behave like a complete clown for 20 minutes, because a lot of the time, that is what ends up happening. Ha!

I really try hard to keep my energy up for the length of each session and put out there what I want to get back. I smile for most of the session and keep my tone happy and easy going even when the session is anything but happy and easygoing. πŸ™‚ 

One of my tricks to get kids to smile right at my camera is to say, “{name}, do you know what?! I have…TICKLE FINGERS!” And while I will never actually touch a child, I will run up close and motion to the child like I am actually tickling them. This most always evokes laughter, to which I will quickly run back to position, refocus and get the shot. I will repeat this multiple times until I feel like I have got what I was wanting. The running back and forth can be exhausting, but thankfully, there’s adrenaline for that.

HowToGetKidsToSmile_021.jpgAdditionally, I make sure I am sensitive to each child’s personality and adjust my level of energy to best match his or hers. For example, if a child is super shy or a little timid, I will tone things down quite a bit, so as to not have them shut down on me completely. If the child is really wound up and super silly, I will also tone my approach down to keep control of the session as best as I can. Sometimes, if I am struggle with cooperation, I will get in fairly close to the child and whisper, “hey {name}, I want to tell you something.” And then I will give them a simple prompt to do, such as “can you go over and give your mom a BIG hug?”

Lastly, if you can’t get a child to smile no matter what you do, don’t force it. A lot of times, their little serious faces are just as adorable as smiles. πŸ™‚HowToGetKidsToSmile_019.jpg

If you are a photographer that needs help with mini sessions, I would love to help you in any way that I can. As a starting point, I have created a “Mini Session Planner” to get you on your way to selling out your mini sessions. Enter your name and email address and it will be sent right to you.

If you liked this post, you might also check out What To Do When Your Mini Sessions Aren’t Selling

If there is anything I can do to help you with your mini session program, please reach out. I would love to hear from you and help if I can!

Cheyenne Schultz

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